Religion and international business

davidlivermore | September 24th, 2009 No Comments

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This morning’s Singapore Straits Times has an interesting article about an Asia-Europe Interfaith dialogue that just took place in Korea. My life has me moving back and forth between the religious world and the business context and I often grieve that there isn’t greater conversation occurring between leaders working in each context. Some business leaders shrug off religious difference as irrelevant to how they work internationally but nothing could be further from the truth.

For example, one American business opened their Thailand office one flight above a Buddha statue. Only after several months of virtually no business did they learn that no one was coming to the office because the business violated a sacred rule: Never put yourself above Buddha, literally! After moving to a new location, business took off. Elsewhere, a Japanese multinational corporation was caught off guard by the degree to which religious beliefs affected their global expansion. The company decided to build a factory on a piece of land in rural Malaysia that was formerly a burial ground of the aboriginal people who had lived in the region. After building the factory, mass hysteria resulted among the factory workers of Malay origin. Many employees claimed they were inflicted with spirit possession. Putting the factory on former burial grounds was believed to have disturbed the earth and stirred the spirits that then swarmed the factory premises.

We can’t underestimate the powerful role of religious beliefs and practices in how we work in different places. For Western leaders, who are often perceived to be Christian even if they aren’t, a respectful conversation about some of the other great religions of the world will demonstrate significant respect when interacting with leaders from other parts of the world. You need not abandon your own religious convictions to convey honor and appreciation for the views and practices of others. This is a huge point to understand about cultural intelligence. We aren’t interested in abandoning all our convictions, values and assumptions. Instead, we’re seeking to understand and respect the beliefs and priorities of others.

• Be respectful about how you discuss your religious beliefs and learn what might be most likely to offend someone in light of their religious beliefs. Be alert to the most potentially offensive things that could be done in regard to a culture’s religious beliefs and seek to avoid those practices.

• Become a student of how religious values and supernatural beliefs affect the financial, management, and marketing decisions made by organization in a particular culture.

• Find out the key religious dates. Avoid opening a new business in China during the Festival of the Dead or on Deepvali in India. Just as we wouldn’t think of planning a key business meeting during Christmas in the Western world, learn what religious holidays to avoid in other locations.

[Portions excerpted from Leading with Cultural Intelligence, pages 83-84]

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